Social Emotional Learning in the Elementary Music Classroom

Social emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and mange emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions. Today’s kids are distracted, suffering from mental illness, and in the social media more than ever. It is becoming the job of the teacher to teach the whole child, the whole learner. We are teaching more than our content now, including their SEL needs. SEL programs effectively improve students’ SEL skills, behaviors, attitudes, and academic performance.  SEL has positive effects on academic performance, physical health, improves citizenship, is demanded by employers, is essential for lifelong success, and reduces the risk of maladjustment, failed relationships, interpersonal violence, substance abuse, and unhappiness.

As music educators we already provide the perfect environment to implement SEL strategies into our classrooms and ensembles. After school activities (choir/Orff groups) are a great place for students to develop and apply new skills. Weaving SEL strategies into your existing curriculum and pedagogical methods sounds like a daunting task, but I assure you, you already do so many of these strategies, it will simply require putting an emphasis on a different part of the lesson. I began focusing on SEL strategies in my classroom about 2 years ago when I received a training on my campus about this “new way of working with student behaviors” At first, I was overwhelmed with something new but when I began to look at the strategies through a different filter, I was able to see how we already do so many of these strategies in our music rooms already. I will discuss several examples here to help you feel empowered to add these strategies to your classroom.

Lessons to Promote SEL

Let’s look at a lesson that focuses on self-awareness, the understanding one’s own emotions, personal goals, and values. Assessing one’s strengths and limitations, having positive mindsets, and possessing a well-grounded sense of self-efficacy and optimism. The way I incorporate self-awareness into my classroom is by using a rhythm activity in which students review a variety of posted rhythms and are asked to make a prediction about how successful they feel they will be. At the end of the activity, I ask students to discuss how they feel about being right/wrong in their choices and we discuss their feelings about getting more/less right than what they predicted.

Rainbow Rhythms is a great way to get students reading rhythms and to make a prediction about how they will perform.

            An additional self-awareness lesson for younger students uses the book, Happy, by Miles Van Hout. Happy is a book about feelings using illustration to show the labeled emotion. The illustrations are vibrant and colorful, and the illustrator chose color palettes that fit identified emotion, beautifully. This lesson is easily spread across several days as there are 17 emotions identified. The process is simple, play the audio selection for the emotion (ie: Content, Clair de Lune by Debussy), discuss what it means to feel the emotion, and how the music fits the emotion, you can close by asking the students, “when do you feel ___?”

            A great lesson for self-management, the ability to empathize, delay gratification, control impulses, and demonstrate perseverance, are any and all games played in your room. When you play games, the children learn so much about self-management and self-regulation. Again, just switch the emphasis here to have students acknowledge that they are learning to control their impulses, persevere, and delay gratification. You can ask students a series of structured questions such as, “why do we take turns”, “why do we keep trying even if we begin to lose”, or “how did it feel when the other team…” Get the students to label their emotions and feelings, validate them, and move on. Pro tip for when students do not get a turn, I use this chant: If I did not go today, it’s okay! This prepares their minds to bring the game to a close and remind them that they can wait their turn for another day.

            Social awareness, the ability to understand, empathize, and feel compassion for those with different backgrounds or cultures is so easily reached within the walls of our classrooms. When we teach songs from different cultures, we should advocate for an artistic approach to world music instruction. We should study the musical elements of the diverse musical genres and aims at improving students’ musical knowledge and skills using a variety of music. During the lesson process the teacher should discuss more in depth the history and meaning of the song selection and have students put themselves in the perspective of someone from that culture. When we do this, we lend ourselves to have a beautiful discussion about why it is important to embrace songs from other cultures.

A brief note about songs from different cultures, we should acknowledge that music is cultural, and we should support the sociocultural approach, which studies world music in conjunction with their sociocultural and historical background. We should have an approach that centers on the understanding of how music is shaped within its context, on the meanings it has for its creators and listeners, and on the way that it reflects their ideas and lifestyles. We cannot ignore how music makes people feel, we cannot use songs in our curriculum because it meets our specific objective. We must have compassion for the history of the music and select pieces that are culturally responsible.

The development of relationship skills helps students establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships and to act in accordance with social norms. We provide students the opportunity to develop relationship skills through active listening, cooperation when performing music, through creative dance and movement and when composing or writing lyrics. A website that I have found success with writing lyrics and composing is, youclick on lyric lab to create lyrics using SEL vocabulary words. Another great lesson for relationship skills goes along with the book, What if Everybody Did That? By Ellen Javernick. In the story we follow a little boy throughout his day noting times that people would do precarious things such as littering and not taking a bath, that make him question “what if everybody did that?” . Once you’ve read the story, practice the rhythm of the B section, then practice the rhythms of the A section which are created from sentences written about common broken rules in the music classroom, then perform A, B, A’ etc…

Being a SEL Model

            Make sure your SEL activities or lessons are sequence to foster skills that are active to help students master new skills, focused on personal and social skills, and target specific social and emotional skills. As educators it is our responsibility to model, practice, and apply SEL strategies and allow our students to witness the process. One way to do this is show your mistakes and failures to your students. I used to think my lessons needed to flow smoothly and be relatively mistake free so the students would get the best learning opportunity. Now that I am SEL focused when I make a mistake I model how to appropriately react to my mistakes, talk to the students about how I am going to learn from the mistake, and what it will look like for the students I see later on to benefit from what I’ve learned. Mistakes are an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than something we should shy away from. When students would make mistakes, I used to focus on what they did incorrectly and work quickly to fix whatever the mistake was (mallet technique, pitch accuracy, recorder tone etc) and move on. Now that I am SEL focused I do not move so quickly, especially if the student is a perfectionist. I acknowledge their high standards for themselves but focus on the learning process and the fun. I let them learn the power of the word “yet” and we reframe our mistakes and say things such as, “I made a mistake when____ and I haven’t mastered that skill, yet.”  Promoting social and emotional development for all students in classrooms involves teaching and modeling social and emotional skills. We need to provide ourselves and our students the opportunity to practice and hone those skills and then a chance to apply them.

Impact on Discipline

Our students come from all different backgrounds and experiences. Often times their behavior is due to trauma and trauma often manifests itself in unwanted behaviors. We need to ensure our students that the school building is a place to safe, loved, and cared for. Children are allowed to feel their feels. Do not repressed a child’s feelings. Let them feel, express emotion, and how to go through the emotion. When students are able to label, identify, express and resolve their emotions, discipline improves.

Words of Caution

Misguided SEL curriculum is being highly researched right now to avoid the “quick fix” phenomena. SEL is not a quick fix, and we cannot fix all mental health troubles rather we can validate student’s emotions and make them feel safe. Incorporating SEL strategies can benefit student’s emotional health but doing so does not replace the help of a licensed mental health professionals. Watch and monitor your children and seek help if you notice behaviors or concerns that you believe should be addressed by a school counselor or other mental health professional. Everyone in the entire school building needs to participate for SEL to be the most effective. Communicate with your administrators on how you are incorporating SEL into your lessons and encourage your school community to do the same. I began adding SEL strategies to my lesson plans when I knew my lesson would provide an opportunity to do so. I communicated these with my administrator and also approached my school’s PBIS Team with the idea of incorporating SEL strategies school wide. As music educators we can begin these conversations and the hope is we can become a part of a larger whole.

This article was featured in the Southwestern Musician, a publication for the Texas Music Educators Association. You can find the link here, as it has a few more edits and thoughts.

Sing! Say! Dance! Play! Care!


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